Q

William Gibson reveals how he predicts the future

In his new book Agency, the author imagines an alternate world where Donald Trump lost the 2016 U.S. election

In his new book Agency, the author imagines an alternate world where Donald Trump lost the 2016 U.S. election

Author William Gibson has set his latest novel, Agency, in an alternate universe in which Hillary Clinton won the 2016 U.S. election. (Michael O'Shea)
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When it comes to science fiction, Vancouver-based author William Gibson is a pioneer.

After all, he single-handedly created cyberpunk — and even more notably, in 1982 he coined the term cyberspace, referring to "widespread, interconnected digital technology."

So how does the prolific author — who has penned 12 novels as well as essays, articles, screenplays, comics and works of short fiction — manage to predict the future? In short, he doesn't.

"I decided that science fiction is never about the future because it can't be, because that's impossible. It's only really about the moment in which it's written. And if it stays in print long enough, that's totally apparent to everybody," says Gibson, who studied English Literature at UBC and released his groundbreaking debut novel Neuromancer in 1984, in a q interview with Tom Power.

"Like when we read Jules Verne today, it's about what the 19th century thought about itself. It's not about what actually happened. So I had completely forsworn the prescient prophet junk before I began to write," says Gibson with a laugh. "But, you know, it's still there culturally, that expectation."

Gibson says it doesn't surprise him when people say he's prescient. What does surprise him is when they don't understand that he's really looking at the here and now.

"I explain that what I do is look for recently arrived kinds of technology or human behaviour that might have legs — like, 'Oh, look, there's part of the future. If that keeps going on, it'll change this in a certain way.' And that's really the most I ever do."

'There's no point in finishing this'

What Gibson could not have predicted, however, was the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump — a shift that actually forced the author to shelve a draft of a different book and create his latest, Agency, which explores what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

"When Trump came down the escalator, nothing changed for me. I winced, but I said, 'Oh no, that's not going to happen.' But then when the Brexit vote came out, I thought that if the U.K. could do something that stupid, there was actually a possibility that the United States could elect Trump, which in fact they did," he says.

"And the morning after the election, I looked at the laptop, which contains the working manuscript of my book, and I thought, 'There's no point in finishing this.'"

All of the major stressors that were in place in the other timeline are still in place. It's just that they're being driven into the saw blade at a slightly less acute angle."- William Gibson

When approaching the new novel, the first thing Gibson realized was that, in this alternate universe, nobody would have the feeling that they "narrowly dodged a bullet" when Trump lost. Still, it's anything but a utopia.

"All of the major stressors that were in place in the other timeline are still in place. It's just that they're being driven into the saw blade at a slightly less acute angle," says Gibson.

"And I think that would be the case. All the stressors would be there. In fact in Agency, one of the first things you discover is that there's this terrible Cuban missile crisis-style nuclear crisis going on in Syria near the Turkish border. And everyone suddenly thinks the world only has a week to live."

'My experience has been entirely about living in Canada'

Gibson says that personally, being an expat American has profoundly shaped his experience. In part because he no longer feels American, but still feels like an outsider in Canada. He also recognizes how much his adopted country has shaped his life and work.

"With sufficient age, I begin to see how much of my experience has been entirely about living in Canada, particularly living in Vancouver," he says, noting that in the United States, he could never have been a freelance novelist and raised a family.

"I could never have done that in the United States because I would have had no way to have medical insurance. In a way, my career is completely about having had medical care insurance all my adult life," he says. "And that's true of every successful working artist I know in Canada."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview with William Gibson produced by ​Chris Trowbridge.

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